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China’s dwarf theme park: A ‘zoo’ or ‘fairy tale’?

The dwarfs who work at a controversial theme park in China praise an environment where they’re not freaks.
Image: Dwarfs at Chinese them park
Kingdom of the Little People employees Yang Jinlu, 18, left, and Zhang Yinghua, 37, are seen at work in Kunming, China.Shiho Fukada for the New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Chen Mingjing’s entrepreneurial instincts vaulted him from a peasant upbringing to undreamed-of wealth, acquired in ventures ranging from making electric meters to investing in real estate. But when he was 44, the allure of making money for money’s sake began to wane. He wanted to run a business that accomplished some good.

And so last September, Mr. Chen did what any socially aware entrepreneur might do: He opened a theme park of dwarfs, charging tourists about $9 a head to watch dozens of dwarfs in pink tutus perform a slapstick version of “Swan Lake” along with other skits.

Mr. Chen has big plans for his Kingdom of the Little People. Imagine a $115 million universe in miniature, set amid 13,000 acres of rolling hills and peaceful lakes in southern China’s Yunnan Province, with tiny dogs, tiny fruit trees, a 230-foot-high performance hall that looks like the stump of a prehistoric tree and standard-size guest cabins.

Also, a black BMW modified to resemble a flying saucer, from which dwarfs will spill forth to begin their performances.

“It will be like a fairy tale,” Mr. Chen said. “Everything here I have designed myself.”

The site is far from complete. So far, it mainly consists of the tree, 33 Dr. Seuss-style cottages with crooked chimneys where kingdom residents pretend to live and specially equipped dormitories where they actually reside. But it is already drawing its share of detractors.

Freak show or ‘Charity Base Camp’
Critics say displaying dwarfs is at best misguided and at worst immoral, a throwback to times when freak shows pandered to people’s morbid curiosity.

“Are they just going there to look at curious objects?” asked Yu Haibo, who leads a volunteer organization for the disabled in Jilin Province in the northeast.

“I think it is horrible,” said Gary Arnold, the spokesman for Little People of America Inc., a dwarfism support group based in California. “What is the difference between it and a zoo?” Even the term “dwarf” is offensive to some; his organization prefers “person of short stature.”

Jean Van Wetter, the China director for Handicap International, a London-based nonprofit organization that helps the disabled, argues that integration diminishes prejudice; isolation reinforces it. “This is the kind of thing you see in China,” he said.

But there is another view, and Mr. Chen and some of his short-statured workers present it forcefully. One hundred permanently employed dwarfs, they contend, is better than 100 dwarfs scrounging for odd jobs. They insist that the audiences who see the dwarfs sing, dance and perform comic routines leave impressed by their skills and courage.

Many performers said they enjoyed being part of a community where everyone shares the same challenges, like the height of a sink. “Before, when we were at home, we didn’t know anyone our size. When we hang out together with normal-size people, we can not really do the same things,” said Wu Zhihong, 20. “So I really felt lonely sometimes.”

Mr. Chen asserts he has won support from no less than the United Nations World Peace Foundation. He displays a certificate designating his company, Yunnan Jiucai Yundie Biotech Ltd., as the “Charity Base Camp” for Kunming, the nearest city.

Few opportunities for the disabled
Supporters and critics agree on one point: the fact that the park is awash in job applications shows the disturbing dearth of opportunities for the disabled in China. Cao Yu, Mr. Chen’s assistant, says she receives three or four job inquiries a week.

“Under the current social situation in China, they really will not be able to find a better employment situation,” she said.

The notion that people with disabilities should be mainstreamed into education and ordinary jobs is still new in China, which is home to an estimated 83 million people with disabilities. The disabled seem strangely absent from the streets of Beijing or Shanghai.

Better than two in five disabled adults in China are illiterate, according to a 2006 survey by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, a government agency. The average salary of a disabled worker is less than half that of a non-disabled worker. Only one-third of disabled people who need rehabilitation services have access to them, the survey found.

Professionals trained to aid the disabled are desperately scarce: Europe has 185 times as many physiotherapists per person as China, according to a 2008 study by Renmin University in Beijing.

Still, some indicators are improving. The number of disabled people receiving low-income benefits jumped to more than seven million in 2008 from fewer than four million in 2005.

Nearly three in four children with disabilities attended school in 2008, compared with about three in five just two years earlier. The number of disabled students in universities and technical colleges in 2008 increased by 50 percent over 2006. Still, they amounted to a mere handful, just one out of every 5,000 students.

“There is a clear instruction from the government to do more,” said Mr. Van Wetter of Handicap International. “The problem is implementation.”

Self-respect and self-sufficiency
Mr. Chen said his employees had gained self-respect and self-sufficiency. “It doesn’t really matter to me what other people say,” he said. “The question is whether meeting me has changed their lives.”

Ms. Wu said it had. Nicknamed Itty Bitty, she is just 3 feet, 9 inches tall. Before Mr. Chen hired her, she developed photos and worked as a telephone operator, jobs she said deliberately kept her out of public view.

Now, she said, she sometimes see spectators tear up during the performances. If they laugh, she said, it is because the routine is funny, not out of ridicule.

One theme of the show is the need to overcome hardships — a lesson Mr. Chen says he believes is too often forgotten as Chinese families grow richer. And there is the Swan Lake parody, a crowd pleaser in which male dwarfs dress up in pink tights and tutus and wiggle their derrières.

“The first time I wore that, I felt really awkward,” said Chen Ruan, 20, who used to collect refuse with his parents. “But then I got up on stage and people liked it. People were applauding and I felt proud.”

The park, 40 minutes by car from Kunming, is not yet profitable. One recent chilly afternoon, only a few dozen spectators showed up. Performers hope for bigger crowds.

“At first I thought it was surreal,” Zhang Furong, 38, a lead actor. “But the strongest emotion I felt was here, we are among equals.”

Xiyun Yang and Li Bibo contributed research.

This story, "A Miniature World Magnifies Dwarf Life," originally appeared in The New York Times.